Saletan’s Stat-Packed 2010 State of the Digital World

Saletan on the state of the world as we live it through technology.

Taming social media in the new decade

I sign up for everything: GeoCities, Classmates, Ryze, Orkut, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Yahoo, Flickr, LibraryThing, Plurk, Lifeblob, Meme, various Ning sites, Technorati, RSS feeds and God knows what else. Partly it’s to learn what they’re all about, partly to link to the folks who are there, partly for the sheer info-glut geekiness of it all. Continue Reading →

Social Media: The Narcissphere

"Circulating
throughout the narcissphere."
A throwaway line from Chris Ayres, LA columnist for the Times of London, has been rattling around inside my head for a couple of weeks. Social networks — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace and all the rest — are all about the "I". Each service is a walled garden of Friends and Followers answering the question: "What are you doing?" The only people in the garden are the people I know, culled from my email address book or vetted by an invitation subroutine. My ego expands with my list of Friends, and I surf for ever more worthy Friends to enhance my Connections.

The Internet has always featured user-generated content: home pages, email, chat lines, fan fiction, blogs, wall postings and the Fifth Circle of Hell — wrathful and sullen comment threads. But the public Internet also delivers exabytes of professionally-generated content: the academic, journalistic, literary and — most recently — cinematic. It's got people we don't like, ideas we're afraid of, philosophies we haven't considered, chances we're not ready to take. It's life. The world. Everything.

Social networks carve up the Net into special interest groups so we mainly see the people who think like we do. No wonder the marketers and spammers are all over social media: we do their research work for them by lining up into the correct psychographic. I think I prefer a life that's not so easily pigeonholed.

Boomers, Gen Xers and Millenials Feel Technology Differently

AgeFrag 

I've just updated the IN3 think piece Age & IT Experience that plots the current age of managers, employees and customers against the big developments in information technology. It's a good party starter: find your age when the IBM PC was launched, when streaming media happened, when Google Maps came out. Try to imagine how people from other life experiences feel about tech, and try to avoid the ageist notion that your cohort is the only one that matters, the only one that deeply understands.

It's a different kind of diversity with wide variations in adoption rates, dexterities, familiarity with digital concepts, comfort levels. Everybody comes from a different place on the map, and we'll all fall off the chart eventually as technology passes us by. With the aging workforce, maybe we should add columns for 65-, 75- and 85-year-olds. After all,we start with COBOL in 1960.

The tech-cultural column is very subjective, with headlines from politics and pop culture. Some companies customize the chart with their own industry milestones, and I can imagine versions for healthcare, education and politics. What do you think?

Three Victims of the Revolution in Brooklyn

3stores
Film Processing, Video Rentals, Music Store: Killed in the Digital Media Revolution

In our Brooklyn neighborhood, retail is done at the personal level by entrepreneurs in storefronts on the avenue, not way out of town at giant, globalized, mall-clotting chain stores. This season, three familiar stores have gone out of business, made obsolete by the changing technologies, market dynamics and brutal business models of digital communications.

  • Film Processing: Who needs One-Hour Photo processing when there’s no more 35 mm or Instamatic film?
  • Video Rentals: How does a neighborhood rental shop compete with 300-channel cable and satellite systems, video-on-demand and the ubiquitous Netflix?
  • Music: Giant Tower Records and our local SoundTracks were both doomed. Who would want to sell music today, up against Wal-Mart’s loss-leading discounts, P2P file sharing, digital satellite radio, iTunes and all those iPods and also maybe Zunes?

We always talk about how technology has conquered time and distance, the three-dimensional world doesn’t hold us back as much. Everything we want is just a click away, but we lose the physical, tactile sense of life. I take lots more photos these days, but they’re JPEG files in my home server. I miss the boxes of snapshots I can sort and stack. The Amazon and Netflix robots recommend exactly the DVD titles I’m likely to want, but I miss browsing stacks of videocassettes and going to real widescreen movies. Services like podcasting and Pandora are breathtaking capabilities, but album covers and liner notes and even the fixed set of tracks  on an album were important, designed parts of the music experience.

We’re still figuring out how to live well in this digitized society. People are obsessed by their Crackberries and spend way too much money on new TV sets. Eventually we’ll get it right, understand what’s important, learn which things to say No to. Another storefront  just opened on the avenue, a big expansion of a whole-in-the-wall start-up that’s now doing a booming business in High Quality Stationery. Apparently, there’s a global trend towards nice writing papers and fancy envelopes.

Video: Healthcare Insurrection

"In the U.S., 16% of GDP — 16% of the biggest economy in the world —
is spent on healthcare — on a system where the price for things is
secret, the quality goes unexamined, access is regulated by
bureaucrats, and customers have very little real choice." — Healthcare Insurrection

We previewed the new HeathcareNBIC video blog entry at the iBreakfast in New York Wednesday. See the video, read the transcript or leave a comment here on the blog.

Right-click to download the 18 megabyte video that describes the big picture in 6 minutes and 20 seconds. Pass it around. We’ll be converting to iPod video podcasts soon.

iSee Project: The Scary Scale of Surveillance

As a kid in Catholic school, I learned that we each had a guardian angel who looked out for us every minute of every day. I remember worrying about doing bad things while he watched, although I also remember making room for my guardian angel in bed. (Maybe I figured I could score my way to heaven.)

We all know that video cameras are peering at us all the time — like guardian angels — although we don’t realize how many thousands of cameras follow us through a typical day. Some eyes are governmental, many are private. All ostensibly have been installed for our own protection, with the best of intentions, for the common good. And all violate our private space by recording our every move without our knowledge and really without our informed consent.

It’s bad enough when the cables channel our souls to minimum wage rent-a-cops who aren’t paying much attention to their screens, but surveillance is gradually being outsourced to artificially intelligent robots who never blink, who never forget, and who make assumptions about us based on prejudice — which is just another term for pattern recognition.

Iaa_1An anonymous group of artists and technologists called the Institute of Applied Autonomy runs a web site that helps users reduce their chances of being watched. The iSee Project pinpoints public space cameras discovered by volunteers and then plots walking routes that minimize exposure. In the iSee map at left (click for larger size), the streets of downtown Manhattan are decorated with hundreds of camera points. I count 30 cameras outlining the New York Federal Reserve Bank at 33 Liberty Street. (Remember the 1995 Bruce Willis caper flick Die Hard: With a Vengeance?)

A short piece in Technology Review describes how Tad Hirsch, a research assistant at the MIT Media Lab, has adapted the web app for a PDA, so you can tap out the path of least surveillance as you stroll down Broadway. I think I’ll just wear a ski mask whenever I go outside from now on.

(Thanks to TheRoBlog.)

Digital Rights Management: Experts Lay Out the Straight Skinny

This week saw two visionaries talking about important issues of copyright in the Digital Age.

DOCTOROW LECTURES MICROSOFT ABOUT RIGHTS

The prolific Cory Doctorow has published notes from his recent talk to Microsoft’s Research Group about the wrong-headedness of DRM (Digital Rights Management software). His five key points:

  1. That DRM systems don’t work.
  2. That DRM systems are bad for society.
  3. That DRM systems are bad for business.
  4. That DRM systems are bad for artists.
  5. That DRM is a bad business move for MSFT.

ORLOWSKI TELLS MUSIC EXECS: “YOU’RE VERY LUCKY PEOPLE.”

Andrew Orlowski, the San Francisco bureau chief of the U.K.’s excellent The Register, tells U.K. music executives meeting in Manchester “How the music biz can live forever, get even richer, and be loved.

Both speakers reflect the current wisdom about the future of digital media, and I’ll bet both were met with cautious skepticism by executives whose careers and fortunes depend on things staying the way they are. There’s always a tendency to try to be upbeat when you tell somebody that they’re doomed, and both Doctorow and Orlowski make a great effort to be friendly and constructive, but at some point you’ve got to stare it in the face: Digital media has opened a Pandora’s Box of disruption that will tear down pre-electronic business models and force new thinking about how to get paid for intellectual property.

Re: Orrin’s “Induce Act”: iPods Don’t Share Music, People Do

HatchThe grasping and clumsy “Induce Act,” aka the Inducing Infringement of Copyrights Act of 2004 co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah, left) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), targets peer-to-peer filesharing networks like Kazaa and eDonkey to the benefit of the music and movie industries. As proposed, the Induce Act would make anyone who creates a product or service that induces a violation of copyright law legally responsible along with the actual copyright violator. If you build a machine that can copy music or movies or TV shows or videogames, you’re guilty. And you are liable for $30,000 per copy.

The Supreme Court addressed this issue in the landmark 1984 Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios decision. It held that, while a VCR could be used to violate copyright, Sony wasn’t itself violating copyrights and the machines had “substantial non-infinging uses,” so the devices and their manufacturer were clear. A generation of important information technology inventions flowed from that decision, and now Senators Hatch and Leahy want to choke off any further digital development just because it hurts their friends at the media conglomerates.

Check out this paragraph from this summer’s Wired News story Techies Blast Induce Act:

Between 1999 and 2004, Hatch has received $159,860 in campaign donations from the TV, movie and music industries, according to opensecrets.org, which monitors campaign donations. In the same period, Leahy received $220,450. They each received less money from the Internet, computer and telecommunications industries.

Using the opensecrets.org numbers, I make it a competitive $184,210 for Hatch and a measly $55,950 for Leahy from the computers, Internet and telecom sectors. Somebody may have to start writing checks to put an end to this quackery.

Hatch is moving ahead with his very bad policy, but many people are up in arms:


On balance, the Information Age has been a good thing. We all benefit from the creation of new, better, cheaper and faster ways of creating and sharing ideas. Nobody defends the theft of intellectual property, but it’s not the government’s job to insulate a handful of sappy conglomerates from digital technology’s invisible hand.

(For a good rant on this topic, see Eliot van Buskirk’s ZDNet piece: Why Orrin Hatch’s INDUCE Act is insane.)

E-Censorship is Uncompetitive

Googcn_2Whole classes of people in the world see an Internet much smaller than the one I see. Internet censorship always starts off with the best of intentions &#0151 save children from dirty pictures, block malicious software, keep workers’ noses to the grindstone, avoid any glimmer of risk or litigation, maintain state security. A Google search in China, for example, doesn’t even report the existence of web sites that the Chinese government blocks from its citizens, according to an article in NewScientist.com.

In the West, cybercensorship is often committed by lawyers who are paid to worry about what happens if some dope on the night shift displays a pornographic GIF, but it’s not just skin sites that are channeled down the Memory Hole. The leading Internet filtering firm WebSense, for example, watches more than 80 categories of suspect web sites. Using WebSense software, a corporation’s network manager, IT manager, or &#0151 even worse &#0151 HR manager can mix and match which categories out of the 80 are hidden from employees’ view. Your company’s Catbert can restrict the obvious topics like Adult Material, Drugs, Gambling and Job Search, but WebSense offers more “granular” controls for killing off Restaurants and Dining, Hobbies, Streaming Media and MP3. More insidiously, the modern Bowdler can keep the over-curious away from categories like Cultural Institutions, Educational Institutions, Political Organizations, Alternative Journals, Religions (pick Traditional or Non-Traditional) or Abortion Sites (pick Pro-Choice, Pro-Life or both).

Most everyone agrees that he who pays the piper calls the tune: the company is paying for the wire so the company decides how the wire is used. But after it filters out all of the Fun, after it locks out all of the Culture and Ideas, it can then go after the Information that people might mis-use in their work. The WebSense program can choke off Financial Data and Services, Reference Materials, Information Technology sites, Dynamic Content and Instant Messaging, among other too-useful temptations.

If all that the censorship software embargos are the sexy sites, not much is lost, but as the lawyers and HR directors and compliance officers have their quarterly reviews of Internet policy, it’s all too easy to justify adding one more category to the spike. So it happens that a filtered Fortune 500 exec sees only the web sites that the filter-monkeys want him to see; his small business or offshore competitor, on the other hand, usually sees the full Internet &#0151 warts and all. And like the Chinese Internet user, the big company browser with all his overhead doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know. To paraphrase Dean Wormer, “fat, scared and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” The less Internet you see, the less competitive you’ll be.